5 hours ago
Tuesday, 10 May 2016
Film: 'Florence Foster Jenkins'
This film held a great deal of promise to me - and if, ultimately, it didn't quite reach the heights of unalloyed delight that I was hoping for, it missed it only by a fraction.
Unlike the recent French film 'Marguerite' which tells basically the same story though with fictional French characters, this Stephen Frears film attempts something nearer the truth - and I can believe that it's achieved it. It's certainly more multi-layered and touching than the other film.
Set in New York in the early 1940s (with Liverpool very credibly standing in for that city) it's the real-life account of the title character (played by Meryl Streep) who, deluded that she has a great singing voice when in fact it's hopelessly inaccurate and off-tune, she decides to embark on a career of professional classical concerts, culminating in an appearance at Carnegie Hall, which also turned out to be her last public engagement, she dying the very next month in 1944. Throughout her ambition she is resolutely supported by her English husband (here Hugh Grant) who does all he can to shield her from the truth and from others opinions. Suffering throughout this ordeal is her pianist, played by Simon Hellberg, whom I didn't know before, but I now read that he's a regular on TV's 'The Big Bang Theory', unseen by me.
It would have been so easy to portray Jenkins as little more than a vocal 'freak' whose entertainment value lies only in the laughs she evinces when 'singing', but this film is rather more profound than simply that. The emotional ranges which both Streep and Grant are required to display is quite wide. La Streep does what she seems capable of doing more than just about any other contemporary actress - making each part that she plays utterly different from anything that she's done before. There isn't the slightest hint in her performance here of any previous roles, she so submerges herself in this one. Totally extraordinary.
I was no less impressed by Hugh Grant, and I'd have to agree with those reviewers who opine that he's never been better than in this film. He's acquired something of a reputation as being a one-note actor (that note being one to which I've always taken kindly, he being always very watchable in my books) but here his acting capabilities come to the fore - including dancing (here in jitterbug-type style), a requirement he actually hates to do, though one would never have guessed it. I found the relationship between him and Streep very moving indeed.
I've not seen every single one of Stephen Frears' films but I have seen most of them, and I can state that I don't think that he's ever made a dud - many of his films actually being not just very good but intensely memorable too. This film joins that august line.
I've been aware of Jenkins since the 1960s when I was still at school and then having no interest in classical music. Because I wanted to have a certain two classmates as friends, two boys who sounded so learned talking about the subject during recreation breaks, I started force-feeding myself with 'serious' music in order to emulate them and have a reason to converse. It was just by chance that one day, on the BBC classical music network from where I gained my knowledge, they happened to play one of Jenkins' recordings - and once heard, it's never forgotten. That experience lodged in my memory for the rest of my life.
She's rarely mentioned nowadays if at all, at least until this film and 'Marguerite' - so I'd imagine that a lot of today's audience won't have been aware of her before now.
I can't quite put my finger on why this 'Florence Foster Jenkins' falls just the tiniest bit short of my highest hopes and expectations. Perhaps it'll come to me later. However, I haven't the slightest hesitation in recommending this film - and if you're as much as a Meryl S. fan as I am, it's positively unmissable................7.5.